Whether you lose someone slowly or suddenly, grief is the natural response. How we grieve is our own personal journey that changes and evolves as we adapt to the loss. It can be described as a roller coaster, waves, or snowflakes—sometimes it’s light flurries, but other times it comes down in a blizzard.
In her internationally best-selling book, On Death and Dying, Swiss-American psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance have since become known as the Kubler-Ross model. Unfortunately, these stages aren’t a checklist—they’re fluid and overlapping and not everyone will experience all of them. In her last book before her death in 2004, Dr. Kubler-Ross said “there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
Bereavement is an eventuality we all go through, but not everyone will experience it from the caregiver’s perspective. When the person they cared for dies, caregivers experience a unique mix of emotions. Who are you when your life no longer revolves around another person’s well-being? You may feel relieved at your newfound freedom, and then guilty for feeling that way.
Moving through the Great Barrier Grief starts with intense emotional suffering, but eventually, you must embrace this new reality and learn to live with the loss. Here’s how to heal and move forward after the one you cared for passes away.
Acknowledge and accept
Feelings just want to be felt. In his book, Living Life After Death, author, motivational speaker and counselor Dr. Cornelius D. Jones observes that “Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.” Just like a serious physical illness or injury, acknowledging the pain and finding ways to take care of yourself and heal is way more beneficial than ignoring it and hoping it goes away. As Dr. Jones says, “The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.”
Whether you’re feeling angry, scared, anxious, depressed, uncertain about the future, hopeless, overwhelmed, immobilized, plain old sad, relieved or guilty—giving those feelings a name and accepting your emotions is a major step to recovery. Healing can’t be hurried. Be patient—it’s a process. Anchor yourself in the hope that deep sorrow will get more shallow. Grief is just as permanent as the loss it rode in on. While it will never go away – despite the number of years that go by – it does get less difficult with time.
Whether it’s yourself, the person you were caring for, or someone else like a healthcare provider, everyone needs to be forgiven in order for you to move on in a healthy way. Wistfully dwelling on the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” just isn’t productive.
Award-winning journalist and author Julie Gorges advises to “Forgive yourself for the mistakes you think were made while caregiving.” Author, speaker, columnist and eldercare consultant Carol Bradley Bursack writes, “Acknowledging that you met the demands of caregiving all the way to the end is the best buffer against guilt.”
Focus on yourself
The body reacts to grief too, and we’re not just talking about tear ducts. Physical symptoms of grief can manifest as trouble sleeping, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, overeating, headaches, muscle tension, increased blood pressure and more. Refocus the attention you gave to the person you cared for on your own fundamental physical well-being.
Sleep, nutrition and exercise are more important than ever. Basic self-care will help you feel calmer, more centered and happier. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially. What used to make you feel happy? Doing something you love, whether it’s spending time outdoors, laughing or learning something new can help you rediscover your zest for life.
Honor their memory
When you miss someone, remember the good times and share those stories. Honor their memory by planting a tree, bringing flowers to their grave, or creating a photo album. There’s no rush—don’t feel bad if you can’t bring yourself to memorialize them immediately.
Help someone else
When you’re feeling sorry for yourself, do something for someone else. If the departed person was active in a charity, you could get involved and carry on their legacy. Volunteer to work with elders, children or animals. Not only is performing acts of service a great way to honor a loved one’s memory but helping others also makes you feel better.
Embrace a new perspective on life
Losing someone is a reminder that we’re all on a literal deadline. It forces you to acknowledge and evaluate your feelings about mortality and revisit your priorities. What do you want to accomplish? What legacy will you leave? If caretaking was your full-time gig, start thinking about what new role you can play that will provide you with a sense of meaning and purpose.
Join support group
Our society is not particularly adept at dealing with loss and grief, but what culture is? Lean on loved ones by discussing your thoughts and feelings honestly. Dr. Jones also addresses this in his book Living Life After Death. He remarks, “Coping with a loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience—nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process.”
Talk to friends, family, a therapist or grief counselor, or a church leader if you’re religious. If your loved one received hospice care, ask if they have a grief support group. Funeral homes can direct you to resources, too. There may even be an active support group in your community. If not, you can start or join one online, like the ORA Loss & Living Program. According to thecaregiverspace.org, “Keeping grief inside can harm you in many ways and can intensify the feelings causing more intense physical and emotional harm.” Connecting with others who have experienced a similar loss helps us cope and makes us feel less isolated in our pain.
Journaling is the world’s oldest and cheapest self-help tool. It’s a judgment-free zone where you can write down feelings that may even be too painful to say out loud. Putting thoughts on paper gives you some distance from them.
One of the hardest parts of losing someone you were close to is not being able to talk to them in person anymore. In lieu of picking up the phone, pick up your journal and tell them the things you want to say. Getting it out is so cathartic.
If grief symptoms linger to the extent that you continue to feel overwhelmed and have difficulty functioning on a day-to-day basis, seek professional counseling.